Boclair: Running on empty

Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 10:40pm

All it takes is a quick look at recent NFL rushing statistics to realize that the AFC South has a leg up on the rest of the league when it comes to running the ball.

It is now three years in a row that a back out of that division has led the league in rushing yards. Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew did it in 2011. He followed Houston’s Arian Foster in 2010 and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson in 2009. Foster and Jones-Drew, in fact, were first and second, respectively, in 2010.

Such a streak is unprecedented in the NFL’s current eight-division alignment and not exactly a common occurrence in the preceding years.

It also suggests, though, that the AFC South actually is out of step with the other seven divisions.

Blame it on Peyton Manning.

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback effectively paved the way for the current pass-happy state of affairs in the league. His proficiency at the line of scrimmage and efficiency in delivering the ball helped make the forward pass more fashionable than ever. Rules changes did not hurt either.

Fourteen years after Manning entered the NFL we just completed a regular season in which Drew Brees set the single-season passing record, Aaron Rodgers set the mark for passer rating and three quarterbacks (Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford) threw for more than 5,000 yards. Before 2011, there had been just two 5,000-yard passing seasons total.

Given that Brees and Rogers led their teams to the last two Super Bowl victories, it is clear the trend is not likely to wane anytime soon. In other words, all of this fancy passing is not some sort of passing fancy.

The rest of the league, of course, does not have to face Manning twice a season the way the Titans, Texans and Jaguars do.

Rather than mimic Manning’s approach or try to beat him at his own game, those teams obviously made up their minds somewhere along the way to do the opposite. The idea was that the ability to run the ball consistently would allow them to control the clock, keep the ball out of Manning’s hands and limit his opportunities to put points on the board.

That approach has become so pervasive that the Titans stuck with it in 2011 even when it was counterproductive and clear to everyone that Johnson was no threat to win another rushing title.

Then again, the argument can be made that it never really has paid off for any of those three teams.

The individual rushing crowns of Johnson, Foster and Jones-Drew did not translate into playoff berths for their teams — or even winning records, for that matter. Tennessee went 8-8 in 2009, Houston was 6-10 in 2010 and Jacksonville went 5-11 in 2011.

It’s not as if they have had much postseason success when they’ve gotten there either. The Titans won one playoff game each in 2002 and 2003, the first two years of the AFC South, and none since. The Jaguars won once in 2005. The Texans never even played beyond the regular season until now.

Manning and the Colts, on the other hand, racked up division title after division title and made it to the Super Bowl twice, with one victory.

Everyone knows that if you can’t beat them, join them.

The Titans, Texans and Jaguars had a hard enough time trying to beat Manning over the years. Now they’re faced with a league in which the majority of teams throw the ball just as often, if not more than he does.

It is time to join the party and run from their recent past.